Cheap, mindless, absurd
During a recent car trip to Colorado and back, I could not help but reflect on the state of American culture. All along the way, against the backdrop of some of the most breathtaking and majestic landscapes anywhere to be seen, the forms of culture men use to define, sustain, and enrich their lives struck me in many ways as cheap, mindless, and absurd.
Yes, there were many examples of thoughtful and even beautiful cultural life: newly-plowed fields, sculptured cities, gleaming machines, and the like, and many other wonderful forms which we brought along with us (books, poetry, iPads, conversation, family).
But the most prevalent forms of culture I observed – highways, billboards, roadside businesses – exhibited a culture that is largely pragmatic, utilitarian, and not much concerned for anything other than material ends. By far the most common form of culture we encountered (except along Maryland’s Hwy. 68, the National Freeway) was advertising – billboards and business signs, mainly. Like prostitutes along some inner city strip, these all vied with one another in garishness, brazenness, and cheapness: “Buy me! Buy me!”
Less noticeable, because more constant, were the roadways and their various accoutrements. Most of the roads were pleasant and well kept; many, however, were in disrepair, with broken pavement, rusted and broken guard rails, and lane painting in need of a touch-up. They weren’t pretty, but they worked, and in many places, that seemed to be about all that mattered.
A culture of decadence
The state of culture in America today is clearly on the downslope of what Jacques Barzun referred to as “decadence.” In his view, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” Culture is futile when the only purpose is serves is vanity and the short-term interests of self-centered men. “Vanity of vanities,” Solomon wrote, “all is vanity.” Much of contemporary culture serves merely pragmatic ends – attract customers, make a buck, provide some fleeting thrill, get folks from here to there. These short-term objectives are not inherently futile, but as long as the culture “works” people won’t worry about anything else of a cultural nature.
For example, golden arches perched on a pole three times the size of a normal electrical pole can be seen from a long way off. They incite interest and may even cue up memories of a particular menu item, stirring hunger pangs that a lesser billboard advertising the same kind of food a bit further down the road will not be able to override. Does it matter if the golden arches mar the view of the horizon? Nah. Or that they encourage other food sellers to try to outdo them by posting billboards further back down the road, or creating similar high-flying barkers of their own? Nope.
So what? Does it matter that men make culture only to make money? Or that they make culture without regard for the environment or the long-term benefits their particular cultural forms might provide?
Well, it does to God, of course. And so it should to us.
Culture is not made in a vacuum. All culture is made in time and space, each of which is a gift of God, intended for His glory and the benefit of men. God calls us to fill each moment of time, and all the space we occupy, with activities and things that fulfill the requirements of love for God and neighbor. I’m not saying that highways and advertising can’t do this; of course, they can.
I’m simply saying that our culture today, mired as it is in pragmatism, utilitarianism, materialism, and sensuality, doesn’t give a moment’s thought to whether or not the forms we make and use are what God would have us create. Or whether we should seek ways of honoring God with such mundane cultural forms as roads, billboards, and businesses.
Christians are culture-makers. Every word we speak, how we dress, the ways we do our work and keep our homes, our preferences in dress, music, and leisure time activities – all these are cultural statements, made to our contemporaries and before God. The Apostle Paul reminds us that God has redeemed us to do good works so that He will be glorified and our neighbors will be blessed by all our cultural choices and activities (Eph. 2.10; 1 Cor. 10.31-11.1). In the midst of a culture that is suffering from spiritual and moral decay, the Christian is called to make cultural choices that preserve whatever is good, illuminate whatever is true, and spread the seeds of beauty into the decadence around us.
If all we ever do is reflect the culture in which we live, then we are only contributors to cultural decline. In order to fulfill our calling as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the leaven of grace and truth in a culture of decadence, we need to give more thought to the cultural choices and activities in which we engage day by day.Culture matters, and Christians matter as an antidote to a culture which, because it is merely pragmatic and man-centered, can only increase in decadence as time goes on.
What does the culture of your life say about your orientation and purpose in life? Are you living merely “under the sun”, indifferent to the many vanities and futilities prevalent in our age of decadence? Or are you living “under the heavens”, determined that all your time and all the space you fill with the choices and activities of your life will be for the glory of God and the edification of your neighbor?
Christians can make a difference in culture, but we must do so beginning with our own time and space investments. It will do us little good to decry the culture of decadence around us if we’re not, at the same time, churning out new and more enduring, more God-honoring, and more neighbor-edifying forms of culture of our own.
More on that in a future installment.
A conversation starter: Share this article with some Christian friends, then get together to talk about the forms of culture in which you are engaged, and whether they reflect the decadence of our age or the glory of the age to come.
For more insight into the power of culture, order T. M.’s book, Culture Matters, from our online store.